I’ve got sunshine
On a cloudy day…
Well, I guess you’ll say
What can make me feel this way?
The Temptations, 1964
I saw Vermeer’s best known and most reproduced painting at the Mauritshuis while travelling in 1983, before heading off to art school in California. I had just paid my respects to the Rembrandts and the Van Goghs in Amsterdam, and checked on the minimal and conceptual art in Rotterdam. In The Hague it was a rainy, off-season day—and years before the museum-blockbuster vogue spread enough to do away with the possibility for a close encounter with a famous artwork. Somehow that day at the Mauritshuis I happened to walk into a providentially vacant gallery where I found myself before the portrait of the young girl in a blue and yellow turban, her presence instantaneously gleaming as she glances over her shoulder at you, affectionately, as though you were a close friend. True to legend, the retinal delectation elicited by the painter’s craft turns out to be dumbfounding, but you’re just as much drawn in by the sitter’s congeniality; she’s not a princess nor a saint nor a merchant’s wife, and her demeanor is rather snapshot-casual, oddly unlike old-master portraiture. She might be turning to greet you, or perhaps she’s about to turn away after bidding you good-bye. Maybe if you stayed right there long enough you’d catch her faintest move . . . if only the craquelure, the ornate frame and three full centuries didn’t stand in the way between you and her.
I remained still before Girl with a Pearl Earring for a very long while, mesmerized by Vermeer’s palpable creation of light and flesh out of pigment and oil, of the warmth of humanity out of unfeeling matter, of ageless beauty out of meticulous labor. At some point I tried to head out. But as I turned my back to this canvas I thought of the kind girl looking out from inside the picture plane and smiling pleadingly at no one. Were I to step away, this masterpiece would remain unheeded and my newfound friend abandoned. Sooner than becoming an accessory to such neglect, I surrendered again to her spell (the painting’s, the girl’s) for a bit longer. I repeatedly stopped myself from leaving—but in due course had to let go, taking my guilt with me along with an overwhelming proof that an old painting can bring about the all-encompassing empathy one reserves for living breathing persons.
In time, amazement led to puzzlement: How come I am moved so by a piece of stretched cloth covered in paint, of which so little is known otherwise? Could this be a product of self-suggestion, a sort of hallucination rooted in one’s heartfelt belief in art? Among my classmates, the more cerebral saw my emotive response as disclosing some sort of fetishistic sublimation—echoing the sweeping condemnation of aesthetic response as the by-product of a failure of reason. The more esoterically inclined swiftly challenged this harsh verdict, in turn invoking the supernatural powers often attributed to art. The first outlook takes the aesthetic to be an illusory psychological projection, maybe prompted by an individual’s proto-paranoid disposition. The second takes it to be something of a mystical epiphany, intellectually grasped inasmuch as the miraculous is. However opposed these positions are, they both subsume the experience of any single work of art under all-inclusive theories of art, where all works partake in either a chimerical or a divine enterprise. Alas, these sweeping, sophomoric presumptions would not lend a hand to an aspiring painter who was trying to figure what makes it possible for a painting to do what Girl with a Pearl Earring does. Early on I realized that I’d have to set out on my own to identify the conditions that underpin the extraordinary effect this painting had over me, and that other paintings just don’t match.
Over the years I’ve focused on some of the technical aspects of this portrait—the straightforward but effective color scheme, the balance of shapes and masses, the alternating use of detailed and simplified rendering, and the probable aid of a Camera Obscura. I also researched what is known from the painting’s record: the speculations on the still-unidentified sitter and the putative significance of her “Turkish” attire, the baffling lack of traces on the origin of the painting before its purchase for two guilders at auction in 1882, and our complete ignorance of Vermeer’s motivation for painting it in the first place. If there’s anything to learn here it’s that neither technique nor history significantly help us appreciate this painting more fully than we already do.
What I was subsequently taught in art school ended up being of little use when addressing my developing Vermeerphilia. For decades, the reigning intelligentsia in academia has staunchly held on to materialist readings of art that approach artworks either as vessels, as carriers of messages, or as cultural instruments, and compound their worth inasmuch as they can be tied to noble ideals or critical questionings of ruling power. Girl with a Pearl Earring, however, is completely mute herein; a pretty face in the least, a sphinx at most.
The questions launched by my experience of the portrait were hardly enlightened by my further studies. Many of the prestigious thinkers I read at the time were thoroughly preoccupied with incorporating the radical, mind-twisting instances of the avant-garde into their theoretical constructs, as though one could not suitably appreciate art without understanding Duchamp first. For instance, both Arthur Danto and George Dickey developed versions of the Institutional Theory of Art to account for the readymade, arguing that a particular cultural framework must exist for such contraptions to make sense as artworks, hence the curious arena we call the artworld. This is indeed nifty when the need arises for certifying a pissoir and canned merda d’artista as art, but it is inconsequential when considering Girl with a Pearl Earring, for this work would count as art wherever and whenever the word “art” retains a meaning we can remotely recognize, irrespective of whether an institution exists to sanction the attribution.
Danto also discredits the dilettantish concern for the lack of traditional dexterity in some of the most prominent art of the past century by arguing that what makes something art is not a visually perceptible quality, but the condition of aboutness, which purportedly allows an artwork to possess content. Danto comes up with this rhetorical conceit while concocting the hypothetical problem of indiscernibles, such as two otherwise identical monochrome paintings that differ only in their “embodied” meaning. Aboutness, however, is doubly useless when considering Girl with a Pearl Earring; for, firstly, there’s hardly a chance we’ll ever come up against this painting’s indiscernible double, and, secondly, if we ever were, we’d still have no clue as to what the Vermeer is actually about at all.
Other philosophers I read over the years also have much to reflect on the perceptual challenges posed by modern painting. Among the brightest of them, Richard Wolheim championed the notion of seeing-in as a psychological ability that allows us to perceptually make sense of complicated pictures. Following Leonardo da Vinci’s age-old instructive that we may use our imagination to find landscapes or battles in the patterns formed by damp walls, Wollheim advocates that seeing-in is just what we do when seeing a woman in, say, a Picasso or a De Kooning. I have long sympathized with Wollheim’s assessments, but it can be a bit of a stretch to posit a special mental faculty in order to explain our seeing the woman in Vermeer’s painting—really, if you don’t see her you might as well be blind!
Something more obliging to the way one actually perceives this painting might be carved out from a suggestion by Joseph Margolis that I’ve recently come across, to the effect that paintings such as Vermeer’s are transparent to us in the way speech is: When we hear someone speaking our language we do not hear the sounds and then attach meanings to them, nor do we hear meanings in the sounds: rather, we hear words and sentences with their meanings. We recognize a word by its meaning, otherwise it’s just clatter. Likewise, when we see a Vermeer, we do not see first the color arrangement on the picture’s surface and then associate what’s depicted with the colors; we see the colors with the depiction. (In fact, one may argue that we don’t even see the surface unless we get close enough and purposely focus on it.)
I welcome Margolis’s point, but the analogy with spoken language cannot be taken at its word (mind the pun), because articulating a “transparent” sentence is a pedestrian feat while crafting a “transparent” painting isn’t, and, moreover, because the prospect for a painting to achieve transparency is not a function of our degree of familiarity with the semantics of an arbitrary sign system. We’d be better served by following the teachings of the later Wittgenstein, taking Margolis’s impression of spoken language transparency as evidence that the sense of a sentence is not triggered by a process parallel to hearing it. Correspondingly, the impression of transparency upon seeing Girl with a Pearl Earring is direct and immediate evidence of its depictive, expressive, and aesthetic qualities.
It’s helpful to think of painting through the peculiarities of words and sentences, but art is not language, or at least it’s not just language, and the differences between the two are all too often overlooked in our critique-obsessed artworld. To wit, one should never disregard the fact that paintings are solid objects, not utterances. The depictive and expressive transparency that certain paintings such as Vermeer’s attain is better thought of in terms of our attitudes towards persons vis-à-vis their bodies. Whatever human qualities we attribute to a person we engage with are not, as it were, parallel to her body but are one with it. Yes, a body is a mass of flesh and bone, but is human insofar as it becomes transparent vis-à-vis the person we relate to. Similarly, a painting is a jumble of paint arranged on a surface, but it is expressive only insofar as the paint jumble becomes transparent vis-à-vis the artwork we relate to.
When it comes to individuals’ affections and taste, artworks are like people; we love some, admire a few, hate others, and are indifferent to most. Nonetheless, the bolder proposal I’m making here is that works of art like Girl with a Pearl Earring are themselves cohesive in the way persons are. When we approach an artwork of this type—and this is evident at first sight—we are attracted by its character, clarity, beauty, generosity, eloquence and forcefulness. We don’t require an explanation, a defense or an eulogy of it. We want to be with it. We start by asking something like “Who are you?” instead of “What do you mean?” This is one reason why we have struggled for centuries to pinpoint the conditions that allow such artworks to do what they do: these perplexing conditions could very well be much the same ones that allow us to be who we are. We may never figure them out, but, thankfully, this is no obstacle for such artworks to make us feel as cherished and treasured in their presence as they are by us.
Of course, artworks are not persons, just as they are not language. But if I am correct, and these rare objects are truly infused with, and do not just represent human qualities, then we can trust—unlike my skeptical classmates of old—that our heartfelt belief in art is perfectly coherent, and so it need not lead us inevitably to hallucination or illusion—unless, that is, the whole world is one.
Nowadays, one could no longer find oneself alone in a room with an über-famous artwork like Girl with a Pearl Earring, as I did back in 1983. But if per chance I ever were to get another solitary audience with this painting, she’d be even more radiant and beautiful, since she was restored in the mid-nineties—while I’d be a sadder, much older and unrestored sight, my consolation being that she’d treat me just the same, as though I never left her. Come to think of it, she’s never left me, either.
Los Angeles, January 2011.